Published May 30, 2017 on Lyra Blog
By Matt Boone, LCSW
I’m a psychotherapist, and in my work, I often encourage people to practice mindfulness. When I suggest it, my clients will occasionally respond with something like, “I’ve tried that, but it doesn’t work for me. I just get distracted. I can’t do it.”
Let me explain: The first time I ever practiced mindfulness was in the parking lot of my own therapist’s office in the early 90s. He asked me to walk from one side to the other while counting my steps. I think I counted 22. Afterward, he asked where my mind had been focused during the exercise.
“On counting my steps,” I said.
“Was it focused anywhere else?” he asked.
“No, just counting my steps,” I said.
He asked me to reflect on how different this was from what my mind usually did when left to its own devices. He didn’t need to hear the answer – and neither did I. We both knew that I spent most of my time worrying about the future, no matter where I was or what I was doing.
With his encouragement, I started reading books on mindfulness and adopted a regular practice. It made a big difference for me, and I’ve practiced mindfulness off and on for the past 25 years. But I have never been as focused as I was that day in the parking lot.
The moment I find myself just noticing what’s happening in the present is exactly when I’m whisked away into mental reverie. I’ll be practicing and discover that I’ve been going over my to-do list for the past two or three minutes. Or wondering what my colleagues will think of the blog I’m writing. Or having an imagined argument with some political figure.
If I were to make a pie chart of the time I spend focusing on the present versus swimming in my thoughts, the “present” slice would be comically slim, probably somewhere in the 5-10% range. That’s what I mean when I say I can’t do it either.
But let’s clarify what “it” actually is.
When I say mindfulness, I mean cultivating a deliberate, nonjudgmental attention to the present. It’s the kind of attention encouraged by most meditation practices. But you don’t have to meditate to be mindful. You can practice mindfulness in lots of ways.
Sure, you can sit quietly and watch your breath, as you might in certain kinds of meditation. But you can also practice informally – for example, by curiously paying attention to your five senses as you wash the dishes.
The keyword is “practice.” When many people first try mindfulness, they tend to take the instruction to focus on the present very seriously. When they inevitably discover they’ve stopped focusing on the present, they think they’ve failed. But mindfulness practice is not about achieving some perfect state of focus. If that’s what you’re going after, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
That is what I can do. I can’t do anything else. And I’m pretty sure most other mindfulness practitioners can’t either. So if mindfulness is not about being perfectly present, then what’s it about?
To me, mindfulness is about building a compassionate awareness of yourself and the world around you. It’s an awareness that’s different from what you get through thinking and meaning-making, one in which you just observe what’s going on in the present as it unfolds.
Of course, one aspect of that unfolding present might be what’s on your mind. But mindfulness practice is about watching your mind produce thoughts rather than investing in the thoughts themselves. And there are so many other aspects of the present to notice as well, both inside of you and out. There are your emotions, sensations, and urges. And there’s everything going on around you – what you see, hear, touch, and smell.
Expanding your awareness beyond your mind is important because you can’t always “think” your way into behavior change. As a psychotherapist, changing behavior is my business. And if simply talking about your behavior changed it, my job would be really easy. But talking about change and doing it are two different things. Practicing mindfulness is one way to make change more possible.
Here’s an example from my life. Let’s say I’m having a discussion with one of my colleagues. I’m embarrassed to say that I can become very enamored of my own ideas. As a result, it’s easy for me to get hyper-focused on my opinion to the exclusion of hearing what my colleagues have to say. You can probably imagine how counterproductive that can be in a work setting where collaboration is essential.
Being mindful helps me notice when this is happening. It allows me to catch my old, ineffective behavioral patterns in-flight and step back from them before they play out. I can actually see myself getting over-invested in making a point. I notice the muscles in my shoulders becoming tense, and I feel a sense of urgency behind what I’m saying.
When I notice this, I can pause and make better choices. I can forgo saying the next “brilliant” thing my mind tells me, take a deep breath, and tune into what my colleagues are saying. From this perspective, I’m far less focused on the comforting familiarity of my own ideas.
I might also notice I feel a little defensive, a little anxious that someone will look smarter than me. Sometimes that’s what’s behind my urgency. But when I’m mindful, I don’t need to change that reaction – it can just be without taking charge.
This all comes from the simple practice outlined above. Notice. Drift off. Come back with kindness and compassion. Repeat. The noticing I do in my regular practice, however brief it is, helps me notice so much more in my life. And coming back with kindness and compassion helps me practice letting go of self-judgments. From that place, I can choose new ways of responding, ones that are more in line with the kind of person I want to be.
Just don’t expect me to be perfectly mindful. It’s not going to happen. And I’m good with that.